F.Birchman / MSNBC.com
By msnbc.com contributor
msnbc.com contributor
updated 10/18/2004 3:11:56 PM ET 2004-10-18T19:11:56

I wonder what the Grand Inquisitor would think about the testosterone patch.

Testosterone, as you may have heard, is proving to be a valuable weapon in the effort to give women (and men, too, for that matter) better sex lives.

For a few years now, some women have been using testosterone gels and creams obtained from compounding pharmacies in an effort to boost a waning sex drive, often brought on by menopause. And recently, Proctor & Gamble announced data from clinical trials of its Intrinsa patch for women. Seems the patch gave women a bit more octane in the old engine. Should the patch be approved for sale, making it the first drug treatment for female sexual dysfunction on the market, P&G and likely other companies to follow will reap huge economic rewards.

Why the wait?
All well and good, but here’s a question: Why did it take so long? Way back when, like about 30 years ago, doctors noticed that women given testosterone-related steroids for treatment of medical conditions reported a sex drive boost as a side effect. During these intervening three decades, as many as half of all women are estimated to have been suffering from low libido and other sexual problems. Yet only now is anybody trying to do something about it.

A just-released survey of available science from Australia’s Jean Hailes Foundation, which has taken a leading role in this research, says low libido and other symptoms “have been reported to respond well to testosterone replacement,” but that “there is a need for formulations of testosterone therapy specifically designed for use in women, along with clear guidelines regarding optimal therapeutic doses and long-term safety data.” Medicine has had 30 years to find this very data, but there are still just a handful of centers trying to help such women.

“It’s been almost a social taboo,” argues Dr. Crista Johnson, a fellow at UCLA’s Female Sexual Medicine Center. “You didn’t want to talk about these things. Women were not supposed to [have desire].”

No kidding. The Grand Inquisitor, placed in charge of Europe’s spiritual purity by the Catholic Pope during the Inquisition, regarded all women as potentially corrupting, and women who showed any inclination to actually wanting and enjoying sex were regarded as possible succubi, vessels of Satan. If the accusations stuck, they could be killed. Similar punishments awaited (and still do await, sadly) Muslim women who get too friendly with men they aren’t married to. And of course, "The Scarlet Letter" is about American Puritans.

Religion, though, is just a cover. Men are simply scared.

Johnson has researched the practice in some societies, especially African, of female genital cutting, the removal of the clitoris and the sewing together of the outer labia of young women. “Thousands of years ago, patriarchal societies feared women’s sexuality," she says. "They felt it was necessary to curb their desire. Voracity had to be controlled.” This is still true today.

Mixed emotions
But don’t get too comfortable with the notion that we here in modern America think differently. We’re all messed up about how to regard women with strong sexual appetites. We rightly fret about sexualizing young girls, but we also tend to condemn adult women who celebrate their sexuality.

Look at our reactions to women who wear mini-skirts, cleavage-revealing tops, thong bikinis. (Attorney General John Ashcroft was so unnerved by the Justice Department’s statues depicting nude women, he ordered them covered.) Men seem to want the women we love to desire us, but we get tetchy about them having desire in general even while we men are being encouraged to act like little devils by the makers of Viagra.

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That male view is often shared by other women who are just as willing to label a sexually aggressive woman as a tramp. And as Johnson points out, it is women who do the genital cutting.

Yet we also fetishize highly-sexed women. Helmut Newton’s photography of strong, proud nudes worship them. Artist Hajime Sorayama’s “gynoids” turn women into depersonalized sexual machines capable of draining every last drop of our male vital fluids, leaving us quivering piles of wimpering Jell-O.


There seems to be no space in between for the average woman who just wants to feel good about wanting and having a rich sexual life. But that’s all changing.

Johnson herself exemplifies why. She’s 29, a freshly minted ob-gyn, who says she got precious little medical school education about female sexuality. Now, she notes, younger women like her are saying, “I demand my sexual needs be taken care of. I demand a sexually fulfilling life. My desires are important and valuable. We are finally breaking the old traditions.”

It’s not easy though. “We’ve been socialized to view sexuality in a negative light," Johnson says. "People put together in one lump sum promiscuity, prostitution, the gaudy things that are in music videos and movies and say these are negative consequences. We have HIV, teen pregnancy, [STDs]. What needs to be distinguished is what a healthy relationship consists of. Too many people in this country are attaching a negative image to sexuality. They are not distinguishing. That’s the challenge, to look at sexuality as healthy and desirable, not something to be banned, or hidden.”

Benefits beyond the bedroom
A possible breakthrough like testosterone therapy is not just about having orgasms or suddenly feeling the urge to install a stripper pole in the living room. Women just enjoy feeling sexy. They like having desire. Far outside the bedroom, that spark helps them feel alive and vigorous.

Sexual health experts hasten to say that testosterone is no cure-all. All the testosterone in the world won’t make a woman in a troubled relationship or with a poor body image want sex any more often, and a host of medical problems, like depression, gynecological conditions and high blood pressure can stymie desire. That tingle between your legs is more complicated than how much of a hormone you make.

But however testosterone therapy fits in, it is an encouraging sign that we are just going to have to get over our collective squirm over sexy women. Women from their 20s through their 70s are coming to the UCLA center, and to other centers springing up around the country, hoping to feel the urge again. They are not content to accept less, nor to accept a “natural” decline.

I’m not sure if that means we'll see 70-year-old grandmothers in latex chaps, but grandpa could be in for a surprise. 

Brian Alexander is a California-based writer who covers sex, relationships and health. He is a contributing editor at Glamour and the author of "Rapture: How Biotech Became the New Religion" (Basic Books).

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